Murder in Uniform – Kashmir’s infamous “fake encounter”

Kashmir’s most infamous “fake encounter” leaves five families desperate for justice

Kashmiris still live alongside half a million military personnel whom they consider their occupiers; the conflict nears its third decade and the tortures, the disappearances—all persist.

By Talal Ansari

Around 1 a.m. there was a knock on the window of Shakoor Ahmad Khan’s home in the village of Brari Angan. Knocks in the middle of the night are never a welcome sound; this is especially true in Kashmir. Then the front door began to shake, the knocking getting louder.

“We didn’t open the door. We were all so scared. But then they broke a small window and came inside,” recalls Shakoor, slightly out of breath, his eyes wide as he relives that night. Five men entered, dressed in army uniforms and armed with automatic weapons. When Shakoor fumbled in the dark to light a lantern, the men stopped him, shined a flashlight in his eyes, told him to stop, that the army would come.

“I said, ‘You are the army, what are you saying?’” says Shakoor, sitting in the same room the armed men entered fourteen years before. The men claimed to be militants looking for a place to sleep. But based on their complexion, language, and uniforms, Shakoor was convinced they were members of the Indian Army. The men asked Shakoor’s father, Juma Khan, a 50-year-old laborer, to show them the way to a nearby town. Shakoor offered to take them instead.

“No, we want your father. He’ll be back in an hour,” the men said, taking Juma outside. “If you cry, we will kill you all. Stay inside and sleep.” As his sisters and mother began to cry, Shakoor looked out the window and saw Juma leading about thirty uniformed men down a path toward the main road. It would be the last time Shakoor saw his father alive.

* * *
Shakoor’s house is in a remote village in Kashmir, a disputed territory in a semi-permanent state of paralysis, cleaved between two nuclear powers along one of the most militarized borders in recent human history. India controls the most populous part of the territory, the Kashmir Valley; Jammu and Kashmir, of which the valley is a part, is India’s only Muslim-majority state. Pakistan controls the rest, much of it stretching over the Karakorum mountain range, inaccessible and uninhabitable. India and Pakistan have gone to war over the piece of Himalayan land officially known as “Indian-administered Kashmir” on two occasions since 1947, when the countries seceded from the British Empire.

In the middle of this conflict are the Kashmiri, who, in 1989, after an allegedly rigged local election, took up arms in a struggle for independence from what was largely perceived to be an occupying Indian force. Since then the armed-resistance movement has resorted increasingly to nonviolent tactics, such as street protests. But the Indian Army, which puts the number of militants at around 300, still uses heavy-handed methods to quell disturbances. In over two decades the violence has claimed more than 60,000 lives, according to some estimates (as many as 80,000, according to others), and roughly 8,000 people have disappeared. In two summers of protest, in 2008 and 2010, nearly 200 unarmed men were killed on the streets of Kashmir, with many more injured and even more arrested. In the run-up, in May of last year, to India’s general election, which Kashmiris routinely boycott, 600 people were preventatively detained. Instances of preventative arrests, alleged tortures, disappearances, and deaths, in and out of custody, continue to fuel anti-Indian sentiment in the region.

The events that led to Juma Khan’s abduction began a few days before he was taken, in Chittisinghpora, a small, picturesque village in south Kashmir, hundreds of miles north of India’s Taj Mahal and just several miles from the place Juma called home. Inhabited primarily by Kashmir’s Sikh minority, Chittisinghpora sits off a highway that connects Kashmir with India. The dusty road is lined with poplar trees, saffron fields, and Indian soldiers clutching their automatic rifles. Every few miles there are signs announcing the numerous camps that are inhabited by more than 600,000 Indian Army troops. It was in Chittisinghpora, on the eve of former President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March of 2000, that the first in a series of tragedies unfolded.

About sixteen unidentified gunmen entered the village in the darkest hours of night. They separated the men from the women and began checking civilians’ identity cards—a routine practice by Indian forces. Then the unthinkable happened: the gunmen stepped back and opened fire with automatic rifles, executing thirty-six Sikhs along the wall of their temple. Then the gunmen left, reportedly shouting Hindu slogans, leaving behind an empty bottle of liquor and bodies covered in blood. It was the first time Sikhs had been targeted in Kashmir’s insurgency, then a decade old.

Indian officials were quick to accuse two Pakistan-headquartered insurgent groups operating in Kashmir for the massacre, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen. Both groups denied the accusations, with Mujahideen saying, “[We] have nothing against the Sikh community, which sympathizes with our struggle. We assure them there never was and never will be any danger to Sikhs from Kashmiri freedom fighters.” Bill Clinton also commented on the killings. “Somebody, we don’t know who, killed forty perfectly innocent people who, I might add, had never before been targeted in all the conflicts in Kashmir,” he said. Separatist groups—those that support Kashmir’s secession—claimed in a statement that India was responsible and that the deaths were an effort to discredit the freedom movement while Bill Clinton, the first US president to visit in twenty-two years, was in India.

Five days later, on a Saturday morning soon after the Muslim call to prayer, the sound of gunfire echoed through the cool mountain air in an area known as Pathribal, eight miles east of Chittisinghpora. It was an “encounter,” the term used in India for a gun battle. The 7 Rashtriya Rifles, a feared Indian Army counterinsurgency unit, had surrounded huts at the top of a densely forested hill known as Zoni Tengri. Hiding inside the huts, the army said, were the suspected foreign militants responsible for the Chittisinghpora massacre.

The entire 7 Rashtriya Rifles unit was there, and with the help of local police and paramilitary groups, they opened heavy fire on the huts. The dawn attack reverberated through the valleys, waking villagers many miles away. In the four-hour encounter, dubbed “Operation Swift” by the military, the 7 Rashtriya Rifles used nearly 1,400 cartridges of ammunition, five hand grenades, four shoulder-fired anti-tank rounds, mortars, and even a flamethrower.

When it was all over, five charred and bullet-riddled bodies were retrieved from the wooden huts. Three of the bodies were completely burned; the head and arm of another were severed. Two bodies had army uniforms pulled over their civilian clothes. LK Advani, then India’s home minister (responsible for the country’s internal affairs), congratulated the 7 Rashtriya Rifles and the local police for “eliminating the butchers responsible for the Chittisinghpora massacre.” Those killed, according to a statement, belonged “to Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, from whom four AK-47 rifles were recovered.”

Justice for the Chittisinghpora victims had been swiftly served. The Pakistani terrorists had been eliminated. News of the operation spread quickly across the subcontinent. President Clinton, now in Pakistan for the last leg of his historic South Asia visit, told the Pakistani people in a televised address, “We cannot and will not mediate or resolve the dispute in Kashmir. Only you and India can do that through dialogue.” The five bodies were hastily buried in three different villages without postmortem examinations.

That seemed to many to be the end of the story. But days later, the five bodies were exhumed. They were not the bodies of Hizbul Mujahideen or Lashkar-e-Taiba members, but those of five ordinary Kashmiri men. And after more than a decade, the intense gun battle at Pathribal would be deemed a fake encounter.

A fake encounter is an unlawful execution, with a dramatic component. It is when government authorities kill a person, or persons, for an alleged crime, in a struggle staged to make the killing(s) look like a legitimate act of self-defense. The army, police, and counterterrorism groups might fake an encounter for cash rewards or professional advancement. The Special Operations Group, an infamous Indian counterinsurgency force, was reportedly given 120,000 rupees ($2000) by the government for the body of a “Pakistani terrorist,” who later turned out to be an innocent Kashmiri carpenter. Between 1993 and 2008, a total of 1,224 deaths occurred during fake encounters in India, according to data released by the National Human Rights Commission. Amnesty International has noted that convictions in these cases are “exceptionally rare.”

* * *
When dawn finally broke on Friday, Juma Khan had not returned. Shakoor headed toward Brari Angan’s mosque to seek advice from the local imam and other villagers on where to find his father. In the midst of crowded Friday afternoon prayers Shakoor met a fellow villager, Abdul Rashid Khan. Shakoor learned that armed men had also picked up Rashid’s father, a laborer and occasional ironsmith, coincidentally named Juma Khan as well, the previous night. Their stories were so similar that it astonished both men.

An hour after Shakoor’s father’s abduction at 1 a.m., there had been a knock at Rashid’s house. The family refused to open the door but it was forced opened for them. Fifteen or so soldiers entered their home, demanding that Juma Khan, thirty-eight, come with them.

“They were from the army. Militants don’t travel in big groups. But there were at least thirty soldiers inside and outside our house,” says Rashid, going over the events that transpired in their mud-brick house. “Even in Pakistan you won’t find that many militants together in one place.”

Rashid’s mother, Roshni Jan, listens quietly as her son speaks. Other family members and neighbors line the room, its walls blackened from decades of wood cooking fires. They stare at the photo of Rashid’s father. “I also offered to go instead of my father but they refused,” he says. When the family began to cry and plead, the armed men started hitting them, telling them that if they were not silent, they would all be killed. In a moment Juma Khan was gone.

That night it rained. Rashid says he was able to follow the muddy boot marks left by the soldiers to an army camp located a mile away. “When we went there and told the major that our father was missing, he gave a lot of excuses and told us to leave,” he remembers. He returned home to find the family in despair—the sounds of their crying filled the house, and neighbors who had rushed over were attempting to console them. Rashid decided to go to the police station to file a report. Then he went to Brari Angan’s mosque for Friday’s prayers, where he met Shakoor. After sharing their horrific experience with each other, Rashid convinced Shakoor to visit the police station as well. The two men now had more in common than their fathers’ names.

Abductions occurred all over south Kashmir in the days after Chittisinghpora. Twenty miles from Brari Angan is Peth Halan, a village right at the southern tip of the Kashmir Valley. It is home to a turquoise spring that feeds the mighty Jhelum River, which meanders through Indian-administered Kashmir into Pakistan. Beyond the village is the towering Pir Panjal mountain range that separates Kashmir from the Indian plains. Mohammad Yousuf Malik, thirty-eight, and Bashir Ahmad Bhat, twenty-six, were headed, one day after Friday prayers, from their homes in Peth Halan to the largest commercial town in south Kashmir, Anantnag, where they regularly sold sheep to local butchers. On their way back, they disappeared.

“If they only had cell phones then,” says Yousuf’s wife, Hanifa Banoo, crying as outside lumps of snow fall from the roof. “They would still be alive.” Hanifa’s son, Irfan, who never knew his father, sits in silence, his breath occasionally visible in the cold air. His father’s framed picture is on the ground amid newspaper clippings and court documents from the Pathribal case.

Just over ten miles from where the two Juma Khans were abducted—and in the same town, Anantnag, from which Malik and Bhat disappeared—another man vanished that Friday evening. Zahoor Ahmad Dalal, twenty-three, left his uncle’s home at 6:45 p.m. to go to the mosque for evening prayers. When Zahoor never came back home his uncle, Nazir Dalal, began frantically searching for him. “Zahoor was an only child and his father died when he was nine years old,” says Nazir, in the general store that he runs. “He was very special to me, like a son. I had to find him.”

Many villages that cling to the rugged slopes around Pathribal awoke the next morning to the sound of heavy artillery on Zoni Tengri Hill. That day, Nazir lodged a missing person’s report with the police. It was rumored that a total of seventeen people had gone missing in the surrounding area.

* * *
When the younger Juma Khan’s badly burned body was given to local villagers at Pathribal for burial, the first concrete evidence of an army-conspired murder was uncovered. Juma Khan’s uncle was one of the villagers tasked with burying the men. Despite the burns, he immediately recognized the body of his nephew. He went to Brari Angan to tell his family what he had seen.

“My uncle came here and told me they didn’t kill militants, they killed ordinary people,” says Rashid.

Through a north-facing window over Rashid’s shoulder, in the distance, is Zoni Tengri Hill, where his father’s body lay after the shots of that Saturday morning.

Rashid was quick to spread the word, first to Shakoor and then to the rest of Brari Angan. That first day, the protests were small. The villagers demanded that the bodies of the five men killed in the encounter be returned to their families. The protests soon spread through southern Kashmir and beyond. The local administration, in an effort to manage the outrage, promised to conduct DNA tests and an investigation into the disappearance of the missing civilians. At the same time, a spokesperson for the 15th Army Corps said that the dead were “genuine terrorists.” “Do not give credence to these reports about a fake encounter. People are twisting facts,” a statement read.

The protests only grew. Nine days after the encounter, local businesses went on strike, and despite a curfew, people congregated in the streets daily to demand that action be taken. Their anger culminated on April 3, 2000, when several thousand protesters marched to the local courts to deliver a document demanding that the bodies of the five dead men be exhumed, and the whereabouts of the other missing Kashmiris be properly looked into. Approximately 4,000 protesters had reached the town of Brakpora when members of an Indian paramilitary group opened “indiscriminate fire” on them, according to an Amnesty International report. Eight, including Rashid’s brother, were killed.

* * *
The killing of protesters in Brakpora was a bloody catalyst. Administrators finally took action. In the state assembly, politicians spoke forcibly against the shootings and demanded an inquiry. Then, on April 6, 2000, the bodies of the five men were exhumed. The entire case began to quickly unravel.

A team of forensic experts led the exhumations of five graves in three villages, miles apart. The younger Juma Khan’s body was the first to emerge. Roshni Jan, his wife, immediately recognized him. “I can say for sure that it is the body of my husband. I have spent my entire life with him,” she said. In that moment Roshni Jan became a grieving widow; she was no longer a wife.

Shakoor and his sisters identified the older Juma Khan. “I told the investigators what his ring looked like and that he had a cyst on his head. I also told them that he dyed his beard with henna,” Shakoor remembers, pointing to a postmortem photo of his father’s body, so severely charred that it revealed much of his skeletal system. Yet somehow, the very tip of his chin still had the remains of a beard reddened with henna. The ring was still on his finger. Family members correctly identified the remaining three bodies.

The official autopsy results corroborated the accusations that what had happened at Pathribal was indeed a fake encounter and that those who were killed were not Pakistani terrorists. They were also grotesque proofs of how badly the men had suffered before their deaths. Zahoor Ahmad Dalal of Anantnag had burns on 98 percent of his body that were deemed “antemortem in nature,” implying that they occurred before his death. Bashir Ahmad Bhat of Peth Halan was missing half of his skull, his face “distorted and unidentifiable.” His body had ten gunshot wounds. Mohammad Yousuf Malik, also of Peth Halan, was decapitated from blast injuries, and his body had four bullet wounds. Both Juma Khans of Brari Angan were badly burned and had multiple bullet wounds. Extreme measures had obviously been taken to render the bodies unrecognizable.

Before the bodies were returned to their families, DNA samples were taken from the five men and their relatives and sent to two locations: the Center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad and the Central Forensic Laboratory in Kolkata. Two long, quiet years passed. Then, in March 2002, the Times of India exposed a brazen attempt to cover up the identities of the Pathribal men. The paper reported that the DNA samples of the dead received by the labs were not from men, but women—and, conversely, that DNA that had supposedly come from three women family members was actually DNA from unknown males. The Kashmiri police refused to comment on the discrepancies. The bodies had to be exhumed again, this time under close watch, and samples retaken. Relatives of the deceased were driven to Srinagar, the capital, by police escorts and their blood samples were taken and resent to the two labs for testing.

Six years later, in 2006, the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s FBI, released a thirty-seven-page report accusing five soldiers from the 7 Rashtriya Rifles of direct involvement in a fake encounter at Pathribal.

The accusations were thorough and damning, and for the first time confirmed the claims of the family members of the dead.

The CBI report illuminated a number of events that occurred before, during, and after the killings on Pathribal’s Zoni Tengri Hill. It concluded that the men, who had “not been seen together” and had “no history of militant activity,” were not foreign terrorists responsible for the Chittisinghpora massacre. The CBI also found the use by the 7 Rashtriya Rifles of “such a huge quantity of arms and ammunition against 5 unarmed civilians” to be suspect; excessive force was employed, it said, to “give the false impression of an encounter.” Perhaps most incriminating were the results of the DNA tests. Both independent labs found that the DNA samples taken from the twice-unearthed bodies were of five missing Kashmiri civilian men.

The report concluded that the 7 Rashtriya Rifles, “under tremendous psychological pressure to show some results in the wake of the massacre of 36 innocent Sikhs at Chittisingpora,” had come up with a plan to abduct and kill civilians. It asked the court to “summon the accused and try them according to law.”

But the families were soon reminded that, in a region as contested as Kashmir, even a CBI report could be disputed. The army appealed the ruling, citing one of the most controversial laws in India—the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The act applies to “disturbed areas” in India, such as Kashmir, and gives the army special powers, such as the power to shoot, kill, and arrest persons without warrants.

The AFSPA also gives the armed forces a wide range of immunity from prosecution, even for murder and rape. Various human rights organizations have severely criticized the AFSPA, including the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, who has said, “Retaining a law such as AFSPA runs counter to the principles of democracy and human rights.”

The Pathribal case began making the rounds within the courts, with the army repeatedly using the AFSPA as a defense, claiming that it could not be prosecuted for the crimes at Zoni Tengri Hill without approval from New Delhi. Local and state courts in Kashmir disagreed. It was appealed once again. Finally, after six years of meandering through India’s sluggish judicial system, the case reached the Supreme Court of India. The Court ruled that the army needed to choose between court-martialing the soldiers and trying them in a civilian court. The year was 2012—it had been twelve years since the events at Chittisinghpora and Pathribal.

Knowing it was likely to lose in civilian court, the army opted to court-martial, away from the eyes of the media and the public. The decision was a huge blow to the victims’ families. Abdul Rashid Khan and the other witnesses came to give their testimony, for the first time meeting the accused murderers face to face.

“I told them why I was there. I told them that my father’s blood was spilled and that I would fight for as long as I live,” says Rashid. The army accused his father of being a militant, which he found preposterous. “I told them he was not a militant. He was a civilian, an average man.”

A year and a half later, on January 23, 2014, the army finally reached a verdict: “The evidence on record does not in any way establish a prima-facie against any of the aforesaid accused persons on any of the charges.” In other words, the army claimed there was a lack of evidence connecting the deaths at Pathribal with the 7 Rashtriya Rifles soldiers. No one had been found guilty. The case was unceremoniously closed.

Rashid was astonished. He always knew it was a possibility that the 7 Rashtriya Rifles would go unpunished for his father’s death, but he had never thought that it would be decided over a decade later, and despite the existence of damning evidence. “This is an injustice. The CBI isn’t wrong, the Supreme Court isn’t wrong, the DNA tests are not wrong,” says Rashid, three days before the fourteenth anniversary of the encounter at Pathribal. “This wound I have inside, it will never heal. But I know the truth. One hundred years from now my father’s bones will still speak the truth.”

Khurram Parvez, a prominent Kashmiri human rights activist, and his colleagues at the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCSS) were not surprised by the ruling; their work is grim, and unending. “India and its institutions are closed for justice for the people of Kashmir,” Khurram says. In 2009 he released, with coauthors, “Buried Evidence,” an exhaustive report that exposed a staggering 2,700 unmarked graves across Kashmir. The mainstream Indian press barely took note of it. In late 2012, Parvez and others released another report, “Alleged Perpetrators,” whose 350 pages took over two years to compile. In it, the coalition details 214 fake encounters in Kashmir; Pathribal was just one of the 214 cases. “This is not about how India delivers justice. They have proved that they will not deliver justice, ever,” says Khurram. “Justice is a democratic right. We cannot talk about democratic rights within an occupation.”

* * *
The lower halves of the trees on Zoni Tengri Hill remain without bark from the firefight that took place in March 2000. Villagers still find shells and bullets in the ground while grazing their animals or planting crops on the tiered plots of land on the slopes. Some of the huts that were damaged in the encounter still stand while others are only now being rebuilt. Shakoor recently dreamed of those huts, where the body of his father, Juma Khan, lay.

“I saw everything in a dream,” he says. “I saw how the army took them, how they tied them with rope in the huts and then fired on them, killing them.” He pauses, looking down at the two photos of his father on the floor. They are starting to fade with time. One picture shows Juma Khan slightly hunched over in the fields of his village, smiling slightly at the camera. The other photo is of his burnt body, shrouded in a bloody white sheet. “I don’t think they will ever get justice,” says Shakoor of the murdered men. “But their blood will make a sound. It is sacred blood.”

Kashmir’s fake encounters have not stopped. They add to the Kashmiri people’s ever-growing distrust and hatred of an occupying force. On the tenth of each month, more than 1,500 relatives of the disappeared, members of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), stage a protest. They sit in silence in a park near Srinagar’s many press bureaus, wearing headbands that bear the names of their disappeared loved ones. They seek answers, to know if their family members are dead or alive. What they know is that justice in Kashmir is elusive.

Jabeena is a 23-year-old widow. She sits quietly as others recount the horror of the fake encounter that led to the death of her husband, Shazad Khan, twenty-seven. “I was very happy with him but it was not my fate to be with him,” she says, holding their only child, a three-year-old son, Shahid. She and the families of three young Kashmiri men killed in a fake encounter in 2010 live in northern Kashmir, in Nadihal, a village near the border with Pakistan. Her small mud-brick home sits just beyond a thicket of apple orchards.

The basic facts of Jabeena’s husband’s story are the same as those of the Pathribal case. Three Kashmiri men executed in cold blood. Their dead bodies lay near the Line of Control after a “shootout” in the mountains. The army says it killed three infiltrators, “Pakistani militants.” The eleven people accused of the killings consist of a colonel, two majors, five soldiers, and three civilians. In what is now called the “Machil fake encounter case,” three young, unemployed men were lured by the offer of jobs, taken to the border, and then murdered. One of their faces was cosmetically darkened to give the appearance of a beard. His name was Shafi Lone. He was only nineteen.

In an extremely rare instance of justice, nine months after the army’s Pathribal verdict, sentences have been handed out in the Machil case. The army sentenced five of its men—two officers and three soldiers—to life in prison. A sixth soldier was also given a life sentence in March of this year. But nothing much else has changed: security forces continue to use deadly force on protesters; the air hangs increasingly heavy in an atmosphere of distrust; the Kashmiris still live alongside half a million military personnel whom they consider their occupiers; the conflict nears its third decade. The killings, the tortures, the disappearances—all persist.

The unprecedented sentences handed out in the Machil case are just that: unprecedented. Machil is an anomaly in a region where thousands of families are awaiting justice, or, at the very least, basic inquiries into the deaths of their relatives.

“How will an army court-martial help us? They will only serve a few years in prison. We want the guilty to be hanged. Our children are not coming back,” says Shazad’s mother, Asha. She and her family had to walk to the hearings because they could not afford bus fare and weren’t able to fully comprehend the proceedings.

Shazad’s father stays quiet while the others talk about the murdered boys; his head slumps over his knees, he stares at the floor. Above him, on a cracked wall of his home, hangs a frayed poster of a white dove, below it the words “Love Is Enough.”

talalansariThis article was originally published in Guernica magazine.

Talal Nadir Ansari is a writer and investigative journalist for BuzzFeed News. He is particularly interested in human rights issues, both domestically and abroad, and international politics. He has degrees from Columbia University and the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He began his professional career as a relief worker during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. There, he realized the power of media to move change in parts of the world that need it most. He can be reached at: @TalalNAnsari

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